Gus Poyet made one change to the Sunderland side that drew away at Leicester City a week ago. Jack Rodwell returned to the midfield replacing Jordi Gomez, with the Spaniard dropping to the bench.
Steven Fletcher continued to lead the line for the Black Cats, and on-loan midfielder Ricky Alvarez returned from injury to feature amongst the substitutes.
Poyet fielded his usual 4-1-4-1 formation.
Jose Mourinho fielded an unchanged Chelsea side. The Blues have been subjected to some heavy fixture congestion of late, but the Portuguese manager saw fit for the same side that trounced Schalke 5-0 in midweek to return to action against Sunderland who have beaten Chelsea in their previous two meetings.
Chelsea lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation led by talisman Diego Costa.
A run of three games without defeat prior to Saturday had seen confidence grow at Sunderland, but the visit of Chelsea was without a doubt the biggest ask of the season so far for the Black Cats, and the correct preparation was therefore vital.
Chelsea have been allowed to run riot in the league this season and before Saturday had scored in all of their opening twelve fixtures. The Blues have arguably the strongest and most balanced team in the division, and keeping Mourinho's side out for 90 minutes would be a big challenge.
If Sunderland were to record a positive result they would need to neutralise Chelsea’s main attacking threats. Diego Costa has been prolific so far in his first season at Stamford Bridge, and he’s supported by the likes of Oscar and Eden Hazard who themselves pose a considerable goal threat.
With 10 assists in 12 games Cesc Fabregas had made more goals than any other player in the Premier League prior to Saturday, so limiting the Spaniard’s influence on the game is no doubt something which Gus Poyet will have paid attention to in the run up to the fixture.
Sunderland’s specific in-game approach became very clear in the opening exchanges. Poyet was obviously relying on his side to maintain a strict defensive shape in order to achieve a positive result from the game, and the Uruguayan had set Sunderland up to frustrate Chelsea ultimately forcing the visitors to try and play through an extremely compact and congested defence.
Without the ball in their own defensive zone the Black Cats were happy to retreat deep and defend the width of the box with what was often almost a back five - and occasionally a back six. Lee Cattermole regularly found himself only metres ahead of John O’Shea and Wes Brown, and between the three Sunderland players the supply line to Diego Costa was almost completely nullified.
The experience of O’Shea and Brown as a partnership was noticeable on the day, with the pair in constant conference passing Costa back and forth between one another with apparent ease. O’Shea especially did a great job of keeping tight to the Chelsea forward, and was probably under instructions to do so. We even saw the 34-year-old track Costa as far as the halfway line on one occasion prior to the forward kicking out and narrowly avoiding a sending off.
Higher up the pitch Sunderland were also very disciplined in their approach to pressing the ball. In Chelsea’s defensive zone Poyet had instructed one midfielder – chiefly Sebastian Larsson- to pressure high up along with Steven Fletcher. With Cattermole and Jack Rodwell protecting the back four Sunderland could allow themselves this adventure, and it meant Fletcher was not isolated should possession be regained by the home side. In the great scheme of things Sunderland didn’t score, but they did make some chances thanks to this approach – and it aided in relieving pressure on their own defence.
From a defensive standpoint it really is hard to fault Sunderland’s performance, and every single aspect of their approach was tailored perfectly to combat Chelsea.
Looking specifically at Cesc Fabregas, the Spaniard was rendered almost completely ineffectual as a result of Sunderland’s game plan, and this left Chelsea struggling to create any real goal-scoring opportunities. The deep, compact and organised nature of Sunderland’s defence meant Fabregas’ creative strengths were fully neutralised with Chelsea forced to play on the outskirts of the Sunderland box. The majority of the time the only pass that was on for Fabregas was a wide ball to either Hazard or Willian, and this was fine for Poyet’s side who were of course content in defending the width of the box.
Fabregas passing in attacking third
I’ve been openly critical of Lee Cattermole during my time at Roker Report, but the 26-year-old was superb on Saturday, and put in what was without a doubt for me his best ever performance in a Sunderland shirt. Cattermole was near enough faultless at the base of the Black Cats midfield, and his interceptions and reading of the game made it extremely difficult for Chelsea to pose the threat they are capable of.
Gus Poyet told Sky after the game that Cattermole has improved more than any other player under his stewardship, and I would certainly agree with that. There has been a remarkable difference in the quality of the player since Poyet has been at the club, and Cattermole does look a lot more convincing in his current role than he ever did under previous managers. I maintain my opinion that his positional discipline and decision making require some serious work, but these are aspects of his game that can improve with maturity and the correct guidance. Everything went right for him on Saturday, and he deserves the credit he is receiving for that performance.
Lee Cattermole against Chelsea
As the game wore on into the closing stages, Chelsea were noticeably frustrated. In the final 10 minutes Sunderland were close to snatching all three points on a number of occasions with Adam Johnson and Jozy Altidore both going close, and these opportunities arose from what I consider to be a very poor tactical decision from Jose Mourinho.
On 76 minutes the Chelsea manager made a call to chase the away win at all costs reverting to a 4-4-2 system headed by substitute strikers Didier Drogba and Loic Remy. This change in formation allowed Sunderland the extra numbers in midfield, and they exploited the Blues a number of times in counter-attacking situations. With Chelsea’s shift in shape Johnson was allowed more freedom to support Altidore centrally, and on another day both could have been the hero.
Chelsea escaped late humiliation, and Sunderland recorded a very respectable and well deserved draw against the league leaders.
Another game unbeaten, a great clean sheet and probably the best result of the season so far.
Aside from Cattermole I think Santiago Vergini and John O'Shea deserve a special mention for their involvement in what was something of a tactical masterclass from Poyet and a really strong performance from every single player.
I said last week that the squad had put the results against Southampton and Arsenal firmly behind them, and this is further proof to suggest that Sunderland are stabalising and on course to safely stay in the Premier League this season.
A great way to head into Wednesday's game against Manchester City.